Last night, the Toronto Raptors and Jeremy Lin made it official: Jeremy Lin is a Raptor! Oh, he also went out and played a couple hours after signing his contract, notching eight points, five rebounds and give assists in his Raptors debut. Not a bad start!
Now that Lin is on board, head coach Nick Nurse has 23 games left to integrate him and Marc Gasol (and possibly another buyout candidate; the Raptors technically still have two roster spots open) into the Raptors lineup before the playoffs. Here are a few of the ways Lin should help:
Short-term: Primary Backup Point Guard
This is, obviously, where we’ll see Lin for the next few weeks; with Fred VanVleet sidelined with a thumb injury that requires surgery, Lin will get plenty of opportunities to run the offense and be the primary ball handler with the second unit.
Lin has started about half of his career games, but I don’t know that he’s ever been in what we consider the top tier of point guards, Linsanity notwithstanding. On the other hand, his experience as a starter puts him in the upper echelon of backup PGs, for sure. I don’t want to compare him directly to Delon Wright because they are different players, but I think you can argue that Lin is more suited to what the Raptors bench needs from a backup PG — especially with VanVleet out.
Lowry is currently averaging 34 minutes a night; it would be nice if Lin picks up the offense quickly enough to get that number down below 32, and even down below 30 when VanVleet comes back. Helping keep Lowry fresh for the playoffs might be the biggest thing Lin brings to the table. Either way I expect Lin to get about 20 minutes a night while VanVleet is out, sharing a few minutes with Lowry — which brings me to my next point.
I’m very curious to see how much in the short-term Lin plays next to Kyle Lowry. VanVleet and Lowry often share the court, and did so quite a bit last year too; seems both Nurse and Dwane Casey are fans of having two point guards who can shoot on the floor. Even this past Saturday, with only two point guards on the team, Nurse played Lowry and VanVleet six minutes together. With VanVleet sidelined, Nurse may still look for opportunities to play both PGs together; we saw it for almost 12 full minutes last night.
Lin isn’t quite the shooter Lowry and VanVleet are, but he might be a better decision-maker than VanVleet at this point in his career; Lowry might benefit from a few more minutes off the ball, the way he did at times last year when DeMar DeRozan would initiate the offense. And Lin played more than a few minutes with Kemba Walker in Charlotte so he should be fully comfortable in the role.
Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that the Raptors have never had a playmaker like Marc Gasol in the front court. Dual point guard looks may not be as necessary any more.
Another interesting note here: When Kawhi Leonard has been out of the lineup, Fred VanVleet typically starts in his place. With VanVleet out, who will Nurse go to when Leonard misses a game? Nurse has several options, here, starting with Norman Powell who started last night. Beyond that, Lin can start in the VanVleet spot with Lowry, and Danny Green shifts down a spot; Gasol and Serge Ibaka can both start, and Pascal Siakam can shift up a spot as the Raptors go big; or, my personal choice, OG Anunoby can start at the three in Leonard’s place. I think OG could really benefit from playing a chunk of minutes with the starters.
And speaking of guys out of the lineup, Lowry has been suffering from a bad back all season long. He seems content enough to play through it, and has been playing exceptionally well the last four games; still, he’ll likely need some rest at some point — hopefully after VanVleet comes back, he can get a few games off, and at that point we’ll see VanVleet start and Lin backing him up.
Longer-term: Primary Ballhandler with VanVleet
Call this the old Delon Wright role. When VanVleet comes back, and the roster is fully healthy (cross your fingers!) having VanVleet and Lin play together off the bench makes a lot of sense. They’ll be undersized as a backcourt, but on offense, this would (in theory) unlock VanVleet as an off-ball, catch-and-shoot threat — a role he excelled in last season. This year, Nick Nurse never seemed fully comfortable trusting Delon Wright to initiate things, meaning VanVleet was cast in that role, and I think he’s suffered for it. Lin is more of a pure point guard than Wright, and I have to believe Nurse will be fine with letting him run the show.
Ultimately, when the Raptors are fully healthy, this might the role in which Lin can bring the most value; have a read of Daniel Hackett’s piece on the team’s 3-point shooting for a further look at how VanVleet can help elevate the offense as a catch-and-shoot threat.
While most of the talk around Lin has been how fits as a ball handler and playmaker, he does bring some scoring chops to the table. He’s not a deadly volume three-point shooter, with a career mark of 35% (right on league average) that has slipped to 33% this year. However, he shot his highest percentage, 37%, two years ago — the same year he shot a career-high 4.3 attempts per game. He’s also at 39% on corner threes for his career, including a fine-looking 46% this season, and is shooting 42.5% on 1.9 open attempts per game (defender four feet away); surely, the attention that this Raptors roster demands, and the IQ of guys like Lowry and Gasol, will get Lin plenty of open looks.
When it comes to breaking down his man, well, Lin averaged 9.5 drives per game — in only 19 minutes a night — for the Hawks. By comparison, Kyle Lowry averages 8.5 drives per game in 34 minutes. Lin’s mark would put him second on the team behind Kawhi Leonard. Even better, Lin scores on 51.3% of his shots on drives, in the same ballpark as Lowry (53.3%) and a wide margin better than Fred VanVleet (38.4% on 8.7 drives per game).
In other words, although Lin probably won’t be asked to carry much of a scoring load, it’s very clear that he can hit open looks and create for himself when needed.
All of the above tells me that Lin, if he’s the same player we’ve seen up to this point in his career, isn’t going to transform the Raptors’ season, but he’s going to fit in very well with the way the team is currently constructed. And that, really, is the ideal scenario when bringing in a new bench player.